Bill Roggio, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, editor of its Long War Journal, and president of Public Multimedia Inc., spoke to a June 3rd Middle East Forum Webinar (video) about the West's "long war" waged on jihadi terrorism.
Roggio said it is "understandable that everyone's focus in on" the war in Ukraine. "I get why people have tuned out the threat of terrorism, that it's been a long war," he added. People are "tired of these extended conflicts, but just because we wish to disengage from these wars doesn't mean that our enemy is going away."
In fact, the war in Ukraine "has given groups like al-Qaeda [AQ] and the Islamic State [ISIS] more space to operate as Western attention begins to turn towards Europe and it turned towards China, as well."
Why, Roggio asked, do AQ and ISIS still matter? What is their goal? "It's very simple," he said. "People confuse what al-Qaeda did on 9/11, or what the Islamic State" did when it was formed, as if their primary missions were to "commit acts of terrorism, to kill people. "But that's not it. Their goal is to reestablish a caliphate and impose sharia law in these areas." They share the same goal, but "just have a different approach."
AQ "wants to establish emirates to build its caliphate." In this scheme, the emirate of Afghanistan would be "one emirate in its global caliphate." AQ says "'we don't declare the caliphate until we are capable of defending it.'" ISIS, on the other hand, wants the caliphate "now," something AQ thinks unwise. In this match, AQ's approach has "proven to be quite correct."
Roggio bemoaned the West's limited attention span, given our enemies' long view of engaging in "persistent low-grade wars":
"Our timeframe is on election cycles. Their timeframe is on generations. They're fighting generational wars. We prioritize weapons systems. They prioritize the will to fight, the religious fervor. We declare victory, or we leave like in Afghanistan, and pretend it wasn't a problem. And they continue fighting."
Looking back, Roggio said "we failed to understand the role of religion and ideology and how that ... motivates our enemy." It's impossible to fight a war, he added, without an understanding of your enemy's motivation.
Roggio cited the experiences of Somalia and Yemen to illustrate the persistence of jihad. In the late 2000s, AQ took control of Somalia's capital of Mogadishu, but even though they later lost control, a U.S. general estimated "several years ago" that since AQ's return, they control "at least 25 percent of the country." In Yemen, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) took control in the mid-2000s. While currently stalled there, AQAP "still retain[s] capacity." He said that AQ's safe havens are already in "Somalia and the Sahel [Sub-Saharan Africa]."
Citing a similar scenario in Iraq, Roggio said the pattern repeated itself after the U.S. was losing, only to rebound following "the surge in the late-2000s." After Obama declared victory in 2011, the U.S. vacated, and ISIS took over large swaths of Iraq and Syria. Although "beaten back," ISIS is still fighting there today.
Roggio argued that AQ "is stronger today than it was pre-9/11." On September 10, 2011, AQ "was fighting alongside the Taliban" to support the latter in taking full control of Afghanistan. Pre-9/11, the Taliban's control of Afghanistan was "70-80 percent," but today, the Taliban controls all of Afghanistan. Roggio said the Trump and Biden administrations both believed the Taliban would split with AQ "and protect women's rights and participate in an Afghan government." Yet, "all you had to do was read the Taliban's propaganda in English and follow what they were doing" to know they would never liberalize their rule. After the chaotic U.S. pullout, "we have a Taliban-controlled al-Qaeda, a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan with al-Qaeda, and a host of other regional and global terror groups operating there."
"It's amazing how the jihad has expanded," Roggio said. If he had to "put odds on what country would fall next," he foresees Somalia, followed by Mali. AQ, according to Roggio's estimation, now has "organizational capacity that they didn't have pre-9/11." Because the West is fatigued from fighting "long wars," the ability to monitor the threat on the ground "has decreased significantly." General McKenzie of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) said "pre-withdraw[al]" from Afghanistan, the U.S. ability to monitor the jihadi activity on the ground was 1-2 percent, but in fact, Roggio interpreted the figure is more likely 0.5-1 percent.
U.S. officials insisted we could conduct "over the horizon strikes," but Roggio said that even with a counterterrorism center established with "hundreds of personnel [and] $19.5 billion" invested, the number of strikes against AQ, ISIS, and other jihadists in Afghanistan is "zero." After all the effort that went into Afghanistan over two decades, including a surge and a U.S.-backed government, "we negotiated with an enemy that we couldn't determine was our enemy." Now the Taliban controls the entire country and hosts terror groups that train there.
Roggio said the numbers of AQ operatives in Afghanistan that U.S. officials reported from 2010 and 2015 did not track with his numbers, which exceeded what officials claimed. In October 2015, a U.S. raid against an AQ camp claimed to kill more AQ fighters killed than official estimates reported. "There's no way al-Qaeda kept such a small footprint and kept their numbers static, so [U.S. officials] could just say fifty to a hundred every year."
AQ and ISIS cultivate "strategic [and] pragmatic" relationships with Middle Eastern countries. For example, the Iranians support AQ because AQ agrees not to state attacks inside Iran. After all, Iran and AQ share the same goal — driving the U.S. out of the Middle East and Southeast Asia.
Radical imams are also "influential" in Saudi Arabia, as the Saudis had a similar arrangement to the one between AQ and Iran. If AQ attacked outside Saudi Arabia, its radicalization went unaddressed by the government. Similarly, Roggio is concerned about al-Qaeda expanding in the Indian Sub-continent (AQIS) and expects "to see a renewed effort," particularly from Pakistani jihadi groups "redirecting the jihad into Kashmir [and] into India, as well."
In the U.S., Roggio said that the Department of Homeland Security has kept threats "to a minimum," despite small-scale attacks from declared followers of AQ and ISIS. He believes the U.S. should have targeted attacks against the AQ and ISIS "religious leaders" not only via "drone strikes or assassinations," but by pressuring their host countries to "arrest them."
AQ and ISIS "can't do what they do without the religious justification, the fatwa," the religious degree that allows them to "carry out suicide attacks or attack certain targets." Absent the fatwa, they'll weaken, but the West "never tackled the ideology," he said, because "religion is icky to us here in the West." American leaders, mortified of accusations of "Islamophobia," cannot defeat jihad here or abroad without taking on their radical ideologies.
The "root cause" of radicalism was never poverty or ignorance, he said, citing Osama bin Laden's billionaire family and Ayman al-Zawahiri's medical degree as evidence. Instead, Roggio argued, "the root cause is [AQ's] religious fervor, its desire to reestablish the caliphate."
Although Roggio believes the "average Muslim here in America" would "not object to us pointing out the problems that exist" with AQ ideology, U.S. leaders mistakenly relinquish control of the message to groups like the Council for American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), which supports the U.S.-designated terror group, Hamas. CAIR "scream[s] 'Islamophobia' as soon as you dare to mention that there might be a religious component to this." Unfortunately, Roggio believes that at this cultural moment, when there is a pervasive "environment of cancellation," tackling the ideology is even less likely.
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.